What is the law on stealing dogs and using them for fighting?

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Dog in cage at the pound

Today, most people would condemn the practice of watching animals tearing each other apart.

Those who organise such gruesome events are, at law, committing a serious criminal offence.

But the practice of dog baiting, or dog fighting, still lingers on around Australia, driven underground and operating illegally.

One dog-owner in Sydney’s north-west came across a most horrific sight: Josephine Rowan believed her own dog had run away until she realised that her neighbour’s dogs were also missing.

In total, more than 20 dogs were reported stolen within her neighbourhood by the end of a week.

Her Chihuahua was later found dead, mutilated and hanging from a tree in Windsor.

She was justifiably furious at those who did this to her beloved dog.

Animal cruelty is against the law, but it often goes undetected or unpunished.

Australia has no national legislation against animal cruelty, leaving it instead up to each state to determine the conduct that constitutes it, and the applicable penalties.

Animal baiting is prohibited under the NSW Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979, but unfortunately it still happens.

The offence covers permitting, encouraging causing or procuring animals to fight, to advertise the intention to conduct such a fight or to promote, organise or attend a fight.

The penalty for this offence is either $27,500 for a corporation, or $5,500 and/or six months in prison for an individual.

Yet these potential punishments are not enough to stop some criminals.

The RSPCA received almost 50,000 complaints in the last financial year, with dogs being the most common animal.

Only 343 of these complaints were successfully prosecuted in court.

The thefts were investigated by the police, but these kinds of crimes are often hard to detect and rarely prosecuted.

Dog fighting is often linked to other crimes such as gambling, or the theft of dogs taken from backyards.

Gambling plays a huge part in the motivation for dog baiting.

One ring, uncovered in Port Stephens, was reported by the Herald as drawing up to 50 people who gambled thousands on the outcome of the fights.

Sometimes the fights were one on one, but sometimes it would be two dogs against one.

It is hard for police to be able to get enough information to prosecute these kinds of illegal dogfights.

Often you have to know someone to be invited to the event and there are watchers who give an alert if a passerby is approaching.

The dogs involved in fighting are often specifically bred and trained.

Stolen family pets are not likely to be in the rings of these professionals, although they may be used for training.

While Staffordshire bull terrier or crossbreeds are the often targeted by the dog thieves as they can be more aggressive, all types of dogs can be stolen.

Stolen family pets are sometimes used in the training of the dogs – they can even suffer limbs being torn off and other painful torture before being killed.

They are held every few months, as the dogs often need time to recover from injuries sustained at the last fight.

The issue hit the media spotlight last year, although reports of stolen dogs have been going on for years and continue to the present day.

The dogs baited are often badly wounded or even killed.

Pets Haven spokeswoman Trish Bourke told The Age that several bull terriers accepted by the shelters in Victoria all had wounds consistent with fighting.

They had injuries all over their faces and bodies as well as displaying fear or aggression when in the presence of other dogs.

Dogs that are trained in dog baiting are often unable to be rehabilitated as they are too aggressive, and are therefore euthanized.

Ms Bourke warns dog owners to ensure they don’t leave their pets alone in public, even for a short amount of time, and to make sure that their yards are secured so that the dogs can’t easily get out.

It appears that dog thieves will sometimes make friends with the dogs leading up until the time of the theft.

They may even stalk owners and their dogs in nearby parks and their homes.

There have even been reports of home fences being tagged or marked with chalk as a way of thieves identifying which houses have dogs to steal.

Owners are also warned to keep their dogs secure at night, which seems to be the main time that dogs are stolen.

Dog baiting happens, and RSPCA spokesman warns pet owners to be vigilant to ensure that their dogs are protected.

Although it may be difficult to prove that baiting is occurring in any given neighbourhood, the incidence of many dogs ‘disappearing’ together with markings on fences of dog owners’ properties appears to be very strong circumstantial evidence of the presence of dog thieves.

Animal cruelty is an offence that should be treated seriously, particularly given the special vulnerability of animals in our society. It may also be a strong indicator of a person’s propensity towards violence against other humans.

The Family Law Act recognises that a person who intentionally causes death or injury to an animal can be dangerous, and this can even be a factor that constitutes family violence.

What do you think, should the penalties for animal cruelty be tougher?

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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